The Torah in Parashat Balak tells the unusual story of Bilam’s journey to Moav, during which an angel blocked his path on three occasions. The angel made itself invisible to Bilam but visible to the angel, and so on all three occasions, when the donkey either veered from the path or simply stopped traveling, Bilam beat the animal. Finally, the Torah tells, “The Lord opened Bilam’s eyes and he saw the angel of the Lord stationed on the road with its sword drawn in its hand” (22:31).
The Midrash (Lekach Tov), commenting on this verse, writes: “This teaches that the entire world is presumed blind until the Almighty opens their eyes.” Just as Bilam could not see the angel blocking his path until God opened his eyes, similarly, we are all incapable of seeing without the Almighty granting us vision. The Midrash points also to a second example, namely, the story of Hagar, whose son, Yishmael, was dying of dehydration until “the Lord opened her eyes” and showed her a well from which she drew water to save her son’s life (Bereishit 21:19).
The two stories addressed here by the Midrash represent two different contexts in which we need God’s assistance to “see.” We need His help to see the solutions to our problems, as in the case of Hagar, and we need His help to see and avoid lurking dangers, as in the case of Bilam. The Midrash here urges us to appreciate God’s role in helping us find solutions and avoid danger, his giving us the intelligence and the information we so often need to solve our dilemmas and to take necessary precautions. This might likely be the meaning of the blessing we recite each morning, praising God “pokei’ch ivrim” – “who gives sight to the blind.” This likely refers to not only the great gift of eyesight, which we can easily take for granted, but also the “vision” we need so often each day of our lives to find effective solutions to our problems and to avoid the dangers that lurk.
Importantly, however, in both cases noted by the Midrash, the people involved were reprimanded, in one form or another, for their handling the given situation. In Hagar’s case, the Torah writes that God showed her the well in response to Yishmael’s prayers (“Va-yishma Elokim et kol ha-na’ar” – Bereishit 21:17), indicating that he was saved only in his own merit, not Hagar’s. Hagar acted improperly by despairing, leaving her son to die while moving away to weep, rather than continuing to search for water, and it was only in response to Yishmael’s prayer that God intervened to rescue his life. And Bilam, of course, was scolded by the angel for beating his donkey rather than understanding that there was something blocking his path (22:32). Although God mercifully opened Hagar and Bilam’s eyes, they were to have worked harder to open their own eyes – to continue looking for a solution (Hagar), and to understand that danger lurked even when this was not evident (Bilam). As much as we must recognize our dependence on God’s help in “opening” our “eyes” and enabling us to see all that we need to see to succeed, we are also to exert our own effort to find solutions and identify potential dangers.